Fordyce Ranching Legacy
Every day was an education for the cowboy in training
The Wyoming Fordyce Ranching legacy began in 1927, when young Iowa-born Joe Fordyce stepped off a train with his parents and half-sister. Father Edward filed on a homestead, which Joe had to help his Scottish immigrant mother Margaret “prove up” on.
Lacking money for necessary supplies and equipment, Joe walked to the closest ranch to ask for work. Owner Vern Barton showed the lad “a little roan horse he had in the corral,” telling him if he could ride it he’d pay him $5 a month more than his cowboys were earning. In spite of having never ridden anything but one big hog and galloping one work horse to the barn (which got him in trouble), young Fordyce was game.
A cowboy front-footed the roan and rolled him into the saddle. Another advised Joe, “Be on him when he gets up.” He was, and he stayed – to ride the rough string and milk cows morning and night for $35 a month. If he’d had a bedroll he could’ve traded it for a lantern, since he was soon calving first-calf-heifers ‘in his spare time.’ Rather than resenting the job, Joe saw it as his passport to “learning about the inside of a cow.”
The busy, diversified Barton ranch found out Joe could work a team, so put him to hauling feed and supplies. Then they moved him to the upper ranch and put him to mowing, bucking and stacking hay. Joe bought a $35 saddle and went back to riding the rough string.
A big 9-year-old stud that no one had ever touched was roped, other hands helped Joe roll him into the saddle, and the dust cloud headed West. It might’ve been 25 miles, maybe 30 when Joe hit the Eastern edge of the rugged Rochelle Hills and stopped the stud, after galloping him to the top of a steep, chalky knob. Apparently not winded yet, the stud spooked at cow drinking below, blew up and bailed off the cliff, somehow igniting the stick matches Joe carried in the pants pocket under his chaps. Tough, and not about to give up his saddle or the stud, Joe evermore wore the sulphur burn scars.
He liked and listened to old-timers like Walter Jenkins and Owen Morrison who shared tips and taught him a lot about handling livestock. In company with and working alongside many such men, Joe got handy with a rope – whether heading, front-footing, heeling, or catching with back hand loops; and was in demand at brandings and spaying yearling heifers, furthering his education on “the inside of a cow.” Joe also learned the skill of gelding stallions, and was soon frequently called upon for that job.
There was a good market for well-broke work horses and Joe worked for neighboring good hands (Cowger brothers Wilbur, Francis and Halley) breaking teams to work in harness while building stock dams and spreader dams. If Joe had any time and could find a trap or pen, he’d gather wild horses and catch them there. He’d then trail them to the Osage Stock yards, ride with a mane hold for fun, and pull mane and tail hair to sell to buy movie tickets. Another way to obtain spending money for dances or movie tickets was catching coyotes and turning their ears in for bounty pay.
Joe courted ranch girl Mary Noe, who’d been born on her parents’ Homestead in the corner of Weston County; Campbell and Converse County both only a stone’s throw away. They soon married and began raising a family. That required money for lots more than entertainment, so Joe worked scattered jobs to buy groceries and keep his young horses in training.
To facilitate that, he’d tie 2 or 3 together at the neck and trail them; but homesteader’s fences and phone lines soon messed that up. Recalling one time the phone line ran out away from the fence and “one horse went on one side and the second on the other,” Joe later minimized the resulting bloody wreck, declaring “That did not help one horse, and didn’t do the other any good!”
A broken leg from a horse accident while pulling a car out of the gumbo didn’t interrupt Joe’s horse breaking for long. He just utilized the ditch he’d been digging for a sewer line; having son John lead the horse down in the ditch so he could step off into the saddle. He then tied the casted leg up alongside the horse’s neck with a piggin’ string hitched to the saddlehorn, and headed for his next job.
That particular horse later proved excellent for calf roping in rodeos. A Southern roper visiting Joe’s region saw the horse work in a rodeo and offered him $2,200, then and there. Because he owed $2,300 on his ranch, Joe countered for that amount. The buyer just walked away. Bitter fate stepped in when strange horses mistakenly got in a pasture where that horse was supposed to be running alone, causing him to get severely cut up in barbed wire. They couldn’t save him, making the loss of the possible $2,200 even more painful.
The Fordyce family grew to include four sons and a daughter. Their one-room log home was drafty and didn’t afford a lot of space for a family of that size, but they had love and joy and music, health and the grit to bloom where they were planted. God always seemed to look after them. Better times brought a ’49 Chevy pickup with an Omaha Standard stock rack, making it much easier for Joe to take his horses to riding jobs. Then he formed a dance band and discovered his three eldest sons and all their instruments could be thrown inside and covered with a canvas to commute to and from the dances. Joe knew neon lettering on the doors of the cab would’ve made it look more “Nashville,” but money was scarce!
In town with their truck one day Joe bought gasoline for ranch use while his wife Mary got groceries, including matches and farmer stick matches. Joe bought a colt he was breaking and loaded it up to haul home. ‘Bally’ had never imagined the world could move under his hooves while the ground rushed at his face, and the fit he threw trying to escape lit the matches. That heated up the barrels and caught the gasoline on fire . . . fortunately the family got it out in time to save both horse and truck!
Once at a holiday picnic, there were horse races, and a guy with a white horse told Joe, “he can outrun anything here, I’d like to have you ride him.” Joe rode him in the race but when it was over he bucked him off. Joe recalled “not knowing what transpired” for a while after that, but “when he woke up he was on 3rd base playing baseball!”
Sherill and Baker Slagle really liked Joe. They wanted him to ride his Hereford bull with a saddle. Joe said he couldn’t, but they talked him into it. Once aboard he really wanted off; but couldn’t get off until the bull decided to throw him off! He landed on the barn roof, and rolled to earth from there.
Joe worked for the Works Progress Administration doing anything to make a dollar; driving truck, cooking, building, tearing down, cleaning up, and building government fences. Before he started custom haying with Charlie Rankin, Joe drove school bus, and when not doing that drove water trucks for C.J. Taylor out of Upton. While haying for Hagerman’s and the LAK Ranch Joe remembered one stack with 5,000 bales in it, which he loaded and hauled alone. He also went to the Pine Bluffs area to put up hay.
Ever looking to the future, Joe started crossing his Hereford cows on Angus bulls; soon expanding his skills by attending A.I. school. The extra riding involved was good for the colts Joe rode, producing fine cow horses. The Fordyce calves began to average 50 pounds heavier at fall market time, and the cows improved in quality. Then he added a little Limousine and Maine Anjou to the mix, and neighboring rancher Charlie Rankin helped him start marketing Club Calves.
The Fordyce legacy is ongoing, with Joe’s ranching, cowboy and horseman skills carrying down strongly. Most of his boys rodeoed at one time, and succeeding generations keep the tradition. Joe and Mary’s eldest son John worked all kinds of jobs to raise his family in Wyoming, and became successful as a race horse breeder, owner and trainer, well-respected on racetracks across the region.
John’s son Clint rode broncs through high school, then became a successful jockey and later Quarter Horse breeder in WY and SD. He married G’nene Escott at Faith, and they are involved in ranching there, with Clint also working as brand inspector and G’nene teaching school. Their son Garet rode broncs and daughter Jozelle rodeoed, and both went to college.
John’s daughter Jolene married Craig Devereaux and they raise cows and horses on their ranch near Newcastle. Along with being famous for their annual consignment horse sale in Newcastle, their kids have rodeoed successfully; still going at the college level. Johns other daughter Janine was a ranch cowgirl, and rodeoed as well.
Joe and Mary’s second son Buzz did some rodeoing in his young years, then married a rancher’s daughter and operated a big outfit near the Rochelle Hills for decades. He then worked feedlots at Garden City, KS and later Greeley, CO training his girls in the cowboy tradition. One daughter and some grandkids are still hooked on horses and cow work, ranching mountain country along the WY/CO border.
Son Tom grew up horseback. Starting at an early age he spent a lot of years living and working on historic ranches along the Cheyenne River, including the AU7 and 4W as well as Bill Dixon’s; often working nearby oil fields on the side. Tom and Della’s son Dennis is a career military man and son Kenny ranches with his family near Sundance, WY, carrying legacy and tradition in raising and showing cattle, breaking and training horses, and dayworking other ranches. Kenny perpetuates the Fordyce family’s musical tradition by playing, singing and writing songs; as well as playing for dances and entertaining for years with the Western Ramblers and now with the “All Cowboy Band” he organized.
Another Fordyce tradition is helping others. Any neighbor in need could count on them showing up to help. Each family member has mentored many others in their skills. Kenny is active with the Crook County fair, helping youth with livestock raising and showing.
“I appreciate kids that want to work hard at it, and we try to pass on what we’ve learned and the success we’ve had” he says. “Our daughters enjoyed showing; Riley has exhibited six Grand Champion Steers in Crook County, and showed horses successfully as well.”
Joe and Mary’s daughter Mary Jo stayed in Wyoming to rear her family and enjoy the lifestyle. Son Wayne also stayed in Weston County until he and his wife were killed in a tragic auto accident returning home from one of their son’s sports events at Torrington. Although neither Wayne’s son nor daughter rodeoed, his granddaughter Emily rode bulls some and grandson Derek rode broncs and worked ranch rodeos for a time. Both are still involved in working ranches.
In honor of his lengthy cowboy career and his family’s ongoing legacy, patriarch Joe Fordyce represented Weston County being inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2019.
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